Saturday, July 23, 2011

Listening to Loons

I could hear only two sounds - one soft and one sad - that night on our little lake, here at the end of the road.

Water from the passing storm dripped from a hundred spruce and fir branches, as if the forest was softly sobbing. The lightening had turned silent, flashing now beyond the ridge as it led a dirge of dark clouds onward towards the north horizon. As the clouds receded, a dark veil of stars was slowly spreading across the silent sky.

The somber sound - the lonesome calls into the night - was the near-continuous wailing of one Loon. The wailing started in the hour before sunset. It grew lost in the midnight storm, but now it was going strong at 2AM with no sign of surrender to the night.

I stood barefoot in the dark, hypnotized by the calls. Loons wail to call out to other Loons on distant lakes, but it sounded so incredibly mournful given what we had witnessed. How could I sleep now, after experiencing these calls, and knowing there would be no baby Loons here this summer?

'Baby Hubert hiding under his mother's wing last summer (c) John Ashley
Baby Hubert riding on mom's back last summer.
Teenage Hubert wrestles a crayfish (c) John Ashley
Teenage Hubert wrestles a crayfish.
Last summer was a happier time. Our resident pair of Loons defended the lake from other Loons, held the marauding Eagles at bay, and successfully raised a single chick through the summer. We named the chick, "Baby Hubert." He grew big and brown and skilled at catching crayfish, gracing our lake into the fall before heading off to the Pacific, sometime after his parents had left. Somehow, Baby Hubert knew the way.

This spring, our Loons returned a few days after the surface ice broke up enough to show open water. Likely, they were biding their time down on Flathead Lake, ten miles to the southeast, and making daily reconnaissance flights to inspect our lake. Their lake. At just about a mile across, it's only big enough for one pair of territorial Loons. We can tell our loons apart because the male is visibly taller than any other Loon we've ever seen. We call him, "Big Daddy." Plus, they wear color-coded leg bands just to make sure.

The spring melting of near-record amounts of winter snow raised our lake's water level almost two feet higher than normal, submerging last year's Loon nest along the shore. So the pair built a new nest out of cattails and other aquatic plants - a floating nest in the marsh, far from shore and completely safe from four-legged predators.

The new nest was conveniently placed where, using a spotting scope, we could watch over it from our living room window. As the month-long incubation period wound down and time for hatching neared, less and less work got done around our house as we peered through the scope every time we passed.

One night at about 11PM, I returned home from a trip, turned off the truck, and heard at least two different Loons calling - loudly and urgently - from the direction of the nest. Whenever an egg hatches, the parents make lots of noise all night long. But this was all wrong. At least one Loon was making yodel calls - the threat call given only by male Loons. A crescent moon dimly lit the lake, but I was tired and decided against canoeing across to the nest area - a decision that I would later regret.

At first light the next morning, there was Big Daddy feeding a tiny, baby Loon chick. But Big Daddy's mate was missing, and no other Loons were visible on the lake. Whenever the rain let up, Big Daddy would feed his chick in the shallows next to the nest. Whenever the rain returned, he would lead the chick back to the nest where he appeared to incubate a second egg. But what happened to mom?

'Big Daddy' with this year's chick (c) John Ashley
Big Daddy yodeling at trespassing Loons while his 3-day-old chick sticks close by.
It isn't too uncommon for a single Loon to raise one or even two chicks after its mate dies, and Big Daddy seemed to be handling the task quite well. The two alternated between feeding bouts and incubating bouts, when both would climb back up into the floating nest. If one of the Bald Eagles so much as lifted a wing, Big Daddy would belt out the warning call and his chick would scurry close for safe-keeping.

But late in the afternoon on the first day, non-resident Loons started showing up. Big Daddy hurled yodel calls at them from the nest area, and that was usually sufficient warning to send the exploring, non-nesting, non-resident birds into flight and on to some other lake. This went on for two days.

When the chick was three days old, more trespassing Loons showed up and refused to leave. It was more than a dominant male like Big Daddy could take. He crossed the lake and spent almost half an hour chasing another Loon back and forth, back and forth. His tiny chick was left floating, alone and defenseless, with the wind slowly blowing him farther and farther from the nest.

It was hard to watch, but at the same time we couldn't tear ourselves away. Where were the Eagles? We spotted one perched near its own nest, but where's the mate? Bald Eagles like to eat baby Loons, and they even take adults from time to time. Where's the baby? Where's Big Daddy now?

'Territorial Loon chase - 'Big Daddy' chases off another Loon (c) John Ashley
Big Daddy chasing a trespassing Loon.

After a painfully long chase, Big Daddy finally drove off the trespassing Loon and then took his time swimming back towards the nest, preening along the way. He gathered up his chick, and both fed before returning to the nest. Apparently, the eagles were already full during the Loon chase. The chick survived, and we felt relieved.

Big Daddy was visible in the nest, sitting on a second egg. But when he left to briefly feed, he was alone. This continued into the afternoon, when another Loon appeared on the lake. This time, Big Daddy sat in silence while the second Loon slowly approached and then swam back and forth in front of the nest. No territorial reaction, no chase, no yodels.

On the following day, Big Daddy left the nest for good, and both loons fed together and apart out in the deeper water. We eventually saw the leg bands that confirmed our assumption - the second Loon was Big Daddy's mate.

Where did she go for three days? If she was still alive, why would she leave her nest? Was she injured in a fight on the night the egg hatched, and spent three days hiding in the marsh? Did she chase or follow another Loon to a different lake, only to return one day too late?

We'll never know. But the wailing call of a Loon has become a reminder for us, here at the end of the road. Life is precious and precarious at the same time, and death is a part of life - you morn each night and carry on each day.


This summer, Montana's resident Loons raised at least 38 chicks that have survived into late July. And in spite of our cold and wet spring, and late-arriving summer, that's pretty close to our annual average of 41 chicks. Our lake failed, and on the big lake north of us, all four nests failed. But enough young Loons have survived to carry the population forward, and that's what matters in the big picture.

If Baby Hubert survives, in three or four years he will return to the area where he was born, and we might get to watch over him once again. We are hoping and waiting.

You can learn more about Montana's Loons at the Montana Loon Society's website.